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How impunity works: an interview with Euromaidan lawyer Evgeniya Zakrevska

Five years after Euromaidan, lawyer Evgeniya Zakrevska talks about its long aftermath and levels of trust between the police and the public.

Tetiana Bezruk
27 March 2019
Evgeniya Zakrevska
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Personal Archive. Used with permission of Evgeniya Zakrevskaya

Ukrainian courts are still examining cases connected to crimes committed during the country’s Euromaidan revolution in 2013-2014. Defendants include former riot police officers from the Berkut unit and titushki, otherwise unidentified groups of men who provoked violence during the revolution.

In February this year, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General announced that the investigation of crimes committed during Euromaidan was finished.

Lawyer Evgeniya Zakrevska, who represents the interests of the families of people injured and killed during Maidan, doesn’t agree with these findings. Here, Zakrevska speaks about how Ukrainian riot police, prosecutors and investigators are working five years on.

How many Berkut riot police officers, who are suspected of complicity in different episodes of violence during Maidan, are still working in Ukrainian law enforcement?

I put the number at roughly one third. But it’s not just Berkut officers. There are other police agents, for example, still working in the police force.

And have they all undergone re-assessment, as mandated in the post-Maidan police reform?

The issue is that the process of re-assessment for Berkut officers wasn’t uniform: someone somewhere would forgive someone else and then the whole thing would be stopped. People were put through a “special re-training programme” or none at all. Some were supposedly dismissed and then re-appointed. But most of them just went on working as before.

A recent media investigation centred on Ruslan Tsikalyuk, commander of the Kyiv special police regiment, who previously served in the Berkut and participated in dispersing the Euromaidan. Why do you think Interior Minister Arsen Avakov hasn’t noticed Tsikalyuk on photos and video footage from the Maidan?

Minister Avakov has noticed everything perfectly well. It’s just that he needs a Berkut commander and now also a special battalion. This battalion has been created and Berkut is its backbone. Who is going to lead it? Anyone who is serving in it showed up somewhere during Maidan, even if we still don’t know about them. Civil society believes that this is inexcusable, but Avakov says that he doesn’t know anything until people have been convicted and sentenced. But we don’t need to wait for the investigation to be complete in order to fire them or not appoint them. All this stuff about waiting for convictions is just Arsen Avakov and Anton Gerashchenko MP manipulating the facts. Standards of proof for a disciplinary offence in a criminal court can’t be compared with violations of an oath sufficient for dismissal.

Berkut police unit, November 2013 | CC BY 2.0 Ivan Bandura / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

Detectives have a rule: if a crime isn’t solved within five days, it probably won’t be solved at all. Every day, month and year that separates us from the moment when a crime is committed disastrously lowers the chances of solving it and raises the amount of resources necessary to find and gather proof.

I was chatting with one of the people injured at the Maidan, who now works for the police, and he said that from the point of view of a regular officer nothing can be proved – there’s no point in investigating. The point is that Avakov knows well that the number of people put on trial and convicted for their actions bears no relation to the number of people who were actually there – and that it’s impossible to prove anyone’s guilt. And I can’t say that this is wrong – you can’t put everyone on a list and put them behind bars. Only the people who have a lot of evidence piled up against them should be punished.

But you don’t need a trial to fire someone from the police. It’s enough that they were present at the place and time and there’s reports of use of riot control measures or physical injuries.

Do these reports exist?

There were no reports at all, and if we have no reports and we know that a given unit was on the spot, we still have sufficient grounds not to just formally disband it but actually fire its members. But we should retain the officers who make statements and give evidence of what they were doing at the time. Then we can change our way of thinking and support not those who were the most active and effective at beating people up, but those who could do the most to combat them. But this didn’t happen.

Those who fought the most fiercely on the Maidan continued to have the most authority, respect – Arsen Avakov was one of those. They got promoted, were given awards and remained in their posts – Ruslan Tsikalyuk is a prime example.

In other words, the Minister for Interior affairs doesn’t want to alter the structure that existed before him.

That’s right, he doesn’t. It suits him. It works and it is effective (for his needs). The fact that he has no authority in this structure is another matter. The Berkut have their own hierarchy and system of values. And I don’t think that Avakov has any real authority. He can’t manage them effectively – although that doesn’t mean that he can’t do it at all. He has a position and the tools of the trade. And he won’t respect them until he gets to lead them.

Do you see a connection between the continuing impunity of the Berkut and the events of 9 February this year in Kyiv, when a special police unit beat up members of the rightwing C14 organisation in Kyiv’s Podil?

There have been attempts to expel Berkut members who didn’t accept what happened on Maidan in terms of the treatment of protesters: they were never promoted and faced harassment. And Berkut members are only too aware of the fact that such behaviour is not just met with impunity but is actually encouraged. Naturally, this leads to situations like the one at Podil police station.

Hromadske video on the events of 9 February outside Podil police station, Kyiv. Source: Hromadske / Youtube.

What happened at Podil police station has its roots in the law enforcement system. It’s seen as desirable behaviour for winning favours. That’s how it’s seen, and will go on being seen, and it’s won’t be just C14 that is on the wrong end of it, but anyone who’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And let’s just hope that there won’t be any flare-ups around the elections, because nothing has been done to prevent them.

In February, Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Yury Lutsenko announced that the pre-trial investigation of the Maidan shootings was complete. What do you think about this statement?

Theoretically, if we have completed the investigation, we should hand the case over to the courts. Completion and closure are to some extent the same thing – “no one is working on this anymore”. That, in any case, is the way I understand Lutsenko’s message – he wants people to grasp the fact that there will be no further investigation of the matter. Not because it is closed, but because they are bringing it to a close. They are preparing public opinion for this development.

We know it’s not closed, but a certain percentage of people believe it is. It’s a preamble to the liquidation of the investigation that is already taking place.

So the General Prosecutor isn’t interested in whether Maidan cases are investigated?

Yury Lutsenko is only interested in things that bring him immediate results. Today’s “now” finishes with the presidential election. Anything beyond that point is of no interest to him. No one, in fact, is interested in anything beyond whether they have the position they’re in. Apart, of course, from those who are really engaged with the issue – the detectives and the prosecutors, who are professionally offended by this frivolous attitude to the investigation. An enormous amount of work has already been done and some of it has still to be properly recorded. And it’s only the ordinary, rank and file detectives, prosecutors and judges who have their heads round it. The people at the top have little idea of their complicity in historic events.

From time to time you look for people from incidents on Hrushevsky and Instytutska Streets during February 2014, as well as new photos and video via your own Facebook page. Is this work connected with cases already before the courts?

Facebook is a really effective tool for both recording the results of court sittings and for pre-trial investigations as well. We find most of the people we’re looking for. Online postings go viral and bring results. But it’s not easy; you are immediately so flooded with information that you can’t process it all. I’m too narrow a channel for such a stream: that should be the work of the detectives. But they still haven’t got to grips with the idea that Facebook and other social media can be used directly in an investigation.

They can collect evidence and search for witnesses – I think that this ought to be introduced as a separate subject for detectives and agents to train in. It would also be useful for solving crimes in the east. They need to search for people there too. But it can only work if there is trust.

Don’t you think that trust in the law enforcement agencies is an important element of the Maidan case?

Of course, it can’t work otherwise. In any cases where the lion’s share of information and evidence has to come from victims and eyewitnesses, the effectiveness of the investigation depends on how much people trust the cops. Relying solely on force and threats is not effective: it often just doesn’t work. We need to win that trust, but it’s not easy. It’s much easier to lose it.

People only pass information to me because they know it will be used just for the purposes of the investigation and the search for the guilty (and it will be used, not just lie around like a dead weight). What it takes a group of undercover cops to do on foot over a number of weeks, I can do on Facebook in a couple of days. And they too need to be able to work with information, because I’m drowning in it.

This issue is much wider than the investigation of the Maidan events. We need to develop relationships with people who could then help the police with their work. There are some things that you’ll never discover without trust, and the law enforcement system can never work to the max without it. Trust is an essential quality for a cop – he or she can’t consider themselves a professional without it. And when people say, “they threw these people out, and they were real professionals” – in the first place, they weren’t thrown out, that’s a fiction; and in the second, if a professional has lost people’s trust, they have lost a quality that is critically essential for their work. And good agents know the price of trust and its importance, and how hard it is to work without it.

If people feel that the police are doing something right, they work in their own time and sometimes even take risks and share information. The very fact of this cooperation, when people share information, is big progress. I’ve never found that anywhere before.

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